Remembering Stephen Hawking, Who Saw Connections Others Missed

The death of renowned Cambridge University physicist Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, triggered an avalanche of comments on the importance of his contributions to scientific knowledge.

At Embry-Riddle, Ted von Hippel, associate professor of physics and astronomy, who completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge, recalled running into Hawking on several occasions. Von Hippel noted that he had also read A Brief History of Time. At one point, one of von Hippel’s cousins served as a nurse for Hawking.

In addition, Terry Oswalt, chair of the physics and astronomy department on Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach, Fla., campus remembered an e-mail exchange between one of his students and Hawking.

Oswalt said he was stumped by the student’s question in class, so he suggested writing to Hawking. Later, Oswalt said, “The student came to me and excitedly showed me a response from Dr. Hawking. To my shock, the student had begun his e-mail by asking Dr. Hawking whether he was still alive! To his credit, Dr. Hawking responded, `You bet I am!’ and he answered the student’s question.”

Von Hippel said of Hawking’s work: “The greatest strides in physics are often made when researchers make connections among apparently disparate phenomena and theories. Benjamin Franklin connected static electricity and lightening. James Clerk Maxwell connected electricity, magnetism, and light. Albert Einstein connected Space and Time. From my perspective, Stephen Hawking’s greatest contribution was teaching all of us how to connect Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to Quantum Mechanics and Thermodynamics. Hawking did this with his pioneering studies of Black Holes and how, counterintuitively, they emit radiation, now known as Hawking Radiation.”

As reported in the New York Times, Hawking discovered that black holes “would eventually fizzle, leaking radiation and particles, and finally explode and disappear over the eons.” The finding was an important step toward connecting gravity and quantum mechanics.

Born Jan. 8, 1942, Hawking was diagnosed in 1963 with a condition similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a muscle-wasting disease. His determination to keep pushing his limits – which included a zero-gravity flight in 2007 – proved inspirational to many.

Oswalt noted: “Dr. Hawking never seemed limited. His frequent appearances on TV shows like the Big Bang Theory and other popular venues showed a keen sense of humor. Despite his physical limitations, Dr. Hawking’s mind roamed freely about the universe in ways we fellow humans have yet to fully understand.  It’s fair to say he was the present generation’s Einstein  I’d like to believe that he’s now discovered whether his theories on space and time are correct.”

Hawking died at home on March 14, 2018, at 76.

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